Sunday, October 28, 2018

Access to food - Justice in the city

Community gardens in New York public housing - responding to food deserts

by Mateja Mihinjac

When a neighborhood team at our recent SafeGrowth workshop decided to tackle the issue of food access, the topic sparked my interest. As they uncovered the links between food access and food deserts, the conversation quickly shifted toward injustice and social disadvantage and what could be done about it.


It isn’t that municipalities ignore food access. Decision makers have been attempting to address the issues of food deserts and food swamps by introducing new supermarkets into needy neighborhoods. However, simply installing a new supermarket in a deprived neighborhood will not solve inequality. Food access has historic roots in structural racism, segregation and concentration of poverty in pockets around cities, not surprisingly the same neighborhoods where crime flourishes. These are the sparks that ignited the food justice movement.

Detroit church replacing parking lots with gardens 

Activist and community leader Karen Washington talks about food apartheid in African American neighborhoods as a symbol of the inequality that has led to numerous social problems and limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.

The consequences manifest in reduced levels of both physiological and psychological health, so frequently prevalent among the socially disadvantaged. Many of these disadvantaged neighborhoods also suffer from disproportionately high levels of crime and weak social cohesion.


There are well-established correlations between violent crime and socio-economic inequality. For example, research from New York City shows that neighborhoods in the city with the lowest median household income have the highest numbers of food deserts. Unsurprisingly, these neighborhoods persistently suffer from higher levels of crime than other more affluent neighborhoods.

Ottawa apartment towers overlook new public gardens

To the residents on the ground the consequences are dire. As they navigate through high-risk streets – for example, when they get groceries – they are vulnerable to crime. The elderly, especially, are fearful of gang violence simply by walking or using public transportation. To worsen their fears, when they travel to outside neighborhoods they tend to experience discriminatory attitudes and harassment.

As a result, residents end up spending their meager earnings by having groceries delivered despite the additional expense. Too often they must rely on cheaper processed (and less healthy) food options near their neighborhood.

Rooftop gardens in New York - using all available space  

New shop owners are also less likely to invest in these food inaccessible neighborhoods because they don’t consider it economically viable. Not only must they factor the reduced buying power of residents, but they must balance their resources with safety risks and the effects of fear from crime. All too often, these factors do not pass the cost-benefit test of food corporations, thus leaving too many city residents out of the equity equation.

Next blog: Some solutions for a lasting change.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Big Apple Rot - New York's Street Scaffolds

Sidewalk scaffolding at night in New York
by Tarah Hodgkinson 

Strolling down the streets of New York is always awe-inspiring. The buildings are beautiful and the streets are alive with the bustle of a city that never sleeps. But in the last few visits to New York I have had a hard time looking up at the buildings in Manhattan. Shielding my view, block after block, are scaffolds on building fronts covering sidewalks. These scaffolds cover sidewalks and make it difficult to walk through the already crowded streets.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one concerned as I found numerous articles about the issue. I also found that due to numerous accidents related to falling building facades and bricks from New York’s aging buildings, the city enacted Local Law 11, requiring an engineering brickwork check on building facades every five years.

Over 7,700 building scaffolds cover New York City sidewalks

Since New York is an older metropolis, it makes sense that the city does not want people getting injured from falling debris. But is it possible that everyone is checking their brickwork at the same time? There had to be more to it.

One NYC Buildings Dept map shows over 7,700 scaffold sheds


It turns out it costs roughly $25,000 to put up the scaffolding to do the appropriate work on a building fa├žade. However, half of that cost is paid to put that scaffolding up, and the other half is paid when taking it down. Reports indicated that many building owners were simply avoiding the teardown costs and retaining the scaffolding as a permanent protection against liability.

Perhaps this pricing model is part of the reason for all the scaffolding. If you have to pay to have it taken down, why bother?

I would argue there are a few reasons to take it down. It impedes pedestrian traffic and it’s difficult to navigate if you have mobility issues (imagine trying to get around these with a wheelchair). The excessive scaffolding also reduces street visibility, requires extra lighting (and higher energy costs) to enhance visibility at night and takes away from the historic beauty of New York City.

There must be a better way to protect pedestrians

Why not rewrite city policy and instead create an incentive system to take down the scaffolding? What if property owners paid $30,000 to put the scaffolding up, but received $5,000 when it was taken down? I have no idea if this fits into the current payment scheme, but it seems this change would trigger more demand to remove all that unnecessary scaffolding.

While it may not address the sheer number of buildings that require these five-year checks, it would help to restore the Big Apple’s walkability and visibility that is so important for street life and safety.